known unofficially as Holland, constitutional
monarchy of northwestern Europe, bordered on the north and west by the North
Sea, on the east by Germany,
and on the south by Belgium.
With Belgium and Luxembourg, the Netherlands
forms the Low, or Benelux, Countries. The
Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, islands in the Caribbean, are part of the Netherlands.
The European portion of the Netherlands
has a total area of 41,526 sq km (16,033 sq mi), of which 33,939 sq km (13,104
sq mi) is land surface. The country’s capital and largest city is Amsterdam.
LAND AND RESOURCES The Netherlands, as
its name suggests, is a low-lying country. About half of the country’s landmass
lies below sea level. This amount would increase should the polar ice caps melt
and slowly raise the level of the sea due to global warming. Much of the
western part, situated below sea level, is covered with clay and peat soils
interspersed with canals, rivers, and arms of the sea. Farther to the east the
land lies slightly above sea level and is flat to gently rolling. The elevation
rarely exceeds 50 m (160 ft). Most of the land is devoted to agriculture; only
small areas of forest and heath remain.
Rivers and Lakes The
major rivers of the Netherlands are the Rhine, flowing from Germany, and its
several arms, such as the Waal and Lek rivers; and the Maas (a branch of the
Meuse) and the Schelde (Escaut), flowing from Belgium. These rivers and their
arms form the delta with its many islands. Together with numerous canals, the
rivers give ships access to the interior of Europe.
In the northern and western portions of the Netherlands are
many small lakes. Nearly all the larger natural lakes have been pumped dry, but
the delta redevelopment program and the reclamation of the Zuider Zee have
created numerous new freshwater lakes, the largest being the Ijsselmeer.
Vegetation and Animal Life The
natural landscape of the Netherlands
has been altered by humans in many ways over the centuries. Because land is
scarce and fully exploited, areas of natural vegetation are not extensive. The
tall grasses of the dunes and the heather of the heaths continue to provide
habitats for rabbits, but larger wildlife, such as deer, have disappeared
except in parks. The remnants of oak, beech, ash, and pine forests are
carefully managed. Land reclamation projects have created new habitats for many
species of migratory birds.
Mineral Resources The Netherlands was
long thought to be poor in mineral resources. Peat, used as fuel, was dug in
several regions, and southern Limburg
Province was known to
contain coal deposits. Salt also was produced. In the 1950s and 1960s great
natural-gas reserves were discovered in Groningen Province.
Smaller deposits of crude petroleum are located in the northeastern and western
parts of the country.
Agriculture Despite the
small size and dense population of the Netherlands, agriculture is highly
productive and a major generator of exports. The export value of meat, flowers,
vegetables, butter, cheese, and other dairy products substantially exceeds the
value of imported grain, tropical products, and animal fodder. This specialized
agriculture occurs mainly on small family farms. Cultivated fields cover 26
percent of the land. Crop production in 1997 (in metric tons) included cereals,
principally wheat, 1.6 million; roots and tubers such as potatoes and sugar
beets, 8.1; vegetables, 3.7 million; and fruits, 657,500. There were 4.4
million cattle, 14.3 million pigs, and 92 million poultry. The Netherlands
became famous for its tulip breeders in the 18th century, and today flowers and
bulbs are important exports. The need to increase yields on limited tracts of
land has made Dutch farmers heavy users of chemical fertilizers, which can
contaminate groundwater. To combat this problem, the government has promoted
efforts to reduce pollutants.
Forestry and Fishing Because little
of the Netherlands
is covered by forest, timber production is of minor importance. Fishing,
however, is a traditional activity that continues to be significant despite the
reduction of the stock resulting partly from water pollution in the North Sea. Atlantic horse mackerel, Atlantic herring,
European plaice, blue mussel, Atlantic mackerel, common sole, Atlantic cod,
blue whiting, and shrimp are leading components of the catch, which totaled
521,377 metric tons in 1995.
Energy and Mining The
industrial structure of the Netherlands
is closely related to the country’s sources of energy. For centuries the Dutch
relied heavily on windmills and peat for energy. As these became outmoded, coal
increased in importance. Deposits in Limburg
Province supplied a part
of Dutch needs, but most coal was imported. Petroleum and natural gas became
increasingly important after World War II; these fuels also were imported, and
the port of Rotterdam became a leading center for
receiving and refining petroleum. In the 1950s and 1960s the Dutch discovered
large reserves of natural gas in Groningen
Province. Production rose
rapidly, permitting the last domestic coal mines to be closed in 1973 and
making the Netherlands
a major exporter of natural gas. In 1996 the output of crude petroleum was 20.5
million barrels, and of natural gas, 95.4 billion cu m (3.4 trillion cu ft),
making the Netherlands
one of the world’s largest producers. The output of electricity totaled 80
billion kilowatt-hours in 1996, 95 of which was
produced in thermal plants burning fossil fuels.